There are times -- quite a few, in fact -- when NBC's production of "Evita Peron" looks an awful lot like a Carol Burnett spoof of an old Joan Crawford movie. Those moments turn out to be its best.
A closing credit carefully notes that this four-hour account of the rapid rise and early death of the Argentinian leader is based upon two published books "and not upon the Broadway musical 'Evita.'" Time was when these biographical gollywhompers came one to a customer; now we have two versions of "Elphant Man" (a Broadway play and a separate film) and, next year, two movies about controversial actress Frances Farmer.
But the two-part NBC movie, at 9 tonight and tomorrow night on Channel 4, does have the peculiar -- in every sense of the word -- advantage of a star performance by Faye Dunaway as Evita, born into poverty, climbing and sleeping her way to the top: first lady of Argentina and wife of Juan Peron.
Dunaway is either an astute performer who goes through spells of dreadfulness or our most fascinating bad actress -- always watchable but occasionally laughable. When she tries playing the briefly virginal young Evita, victim of tubby seducers right and left, she is almost foolishly false. But when Evita starts doing the seducing and storming her way into minor history, Dunaway has the kind of high old time she had in "Network."
Some of the scenes are too reminiscent of that 1977 film, for which Dunaway won an Oscar. Evita becomes a radio actress and grandly proposes a series about great women of history. Later, when Evita runs for vice president (eliminating other contenders with prudent warning blasts from a shotgun), she shouts, "It's official! We have no opposition!"
In both cases she sounds just like the mad programmer of the UBS television network and not anything at all like the sexpot despot she's supposed to be.
But then, Ronald Harwood's script doesn't exactly radiate authenticity. Hollywood has put Evita through the banalysis machine and found her just another little girl who wants to be a star. Once her free peasant village says, she says, "I'm not going back until I'm somebody. Until I've made it," and then she adds, "I want to be noticed. I want to be special" -- Gollywood lingo circa 1981.
The degee of social and psychological analysis isn't particularly deep, either. Apparently Evita hates the rich. "I hate the rich, hate them," she says early on. "I hate the rich," she says later and, still later in part one, "You come to me and you'll find out what it means to hate the rich."
The films open in 1926, when Evita's mother drags her and several other illigitmate kids to the funeral of their father. There the man's wife confronts Evita's mother, the spurned mistress (played by majectic Katy Jurado, who has turned into the Spanish Anna Magnani), and, ptui, one of the rich people spits in little Evita's face.
Eternities later, the spit is on the other face; Evita gets to return the gesture to an arsitocratic Navy officer. "You bitch!" he shouts. Slap! The film is filled with those confrontational wowsers.
Among the more appealing of those is Rite Moreno's set-to with Dunaway on a sound stage, where both are dolled up in Marie Antoinette wigs and the naughty Evita has appropriated the star's chair. "You no-talent whore!" shouts Moreno. "You'll be sorry for that!" vows Dunaway. Sure enough, many scenes later, Evita's husband Juan is president and Moreno is being run out of town along with a hammy old singer (Jose Ferrer, quite funny) who'd seduced Evita when she was poor.
The first two hours mainly concern Evita's ascent from the gutter. She seduces a couple of important military men, the second of them Peron himself, by sending them little notes while they are out in public. This gal writes a mean note, because the men respond without an instant of hesitation.
In the second part, Evita runs riot and Dunaway gets to alternate between mad scenes and madder scenes. Evita arrives at Peron's apartment and tosses out his fomer mistress -- a little girl barely in her teens. "Get out of here now," she says, and, whack, slaps the tot's pudgy face. When Peron comes home, he sees parts of Evita emerging from behind the back of a chair -- a leg, an arm, a puff of smoke from her cigarette, a brandy snifter. If it's supposed to be sexy, it comes off hilarious.
There's no reason to respect the film's view of Argentine history, but for the record, there are scenes in which Peron grants asylum to fleeing Nazis for a crateful of gold bullion. Peron treasures his photographs of Hitler and Mussolini; he is depicted as an idoit who needed a strong woman to mobilize his idiocy. Except for extras and a few principals, none of the actors is Hispanic. Peron is played by James Faretino.
As the film concludes, Evita, up to her old tricks, throws the little old "Ladies of Charity" in the slammer when they slight her mama; fakes a bomb blast in the presidential car in order to frame a troublesome union leader; and jails one of her own friends (Signe Hasso) because the woman dares to point out that Evita's notion of social justice is a grandstanding sham. She dies at 33, and mourners praise her as a saint, which is apparently the film's way of saying you can fool enough of the people enough of the time.
Producer-director Marvin J. Chomsky seemed to be imposing an appropriately stately cadence on NBC's "Holocaust" when he directed that mini-series two years ago. Now, to judge from his work on "Evita," it appears more likely he is just a prosiac drudge, maestro of standard stuff. He does do a nice montage of mourners keeping vigil at the very end, however, and there is one enticing shot of Dunaway through a rainy window.
Evita is undone in her bid for the vice presidency because she once lied about her age. Dunaway may be a tad old for the part herself, and she isn't exactly the spitfire type, but without her, these four hours would be worthless. With her, they're at least a bizarre sort of fun